Chapter XL: The Major has a Letter

The Firm of Girdlestone

At four o’clock Mr. Girdlestone stepped into the Bedsworth telegraph office and wired his short message. It ran thus: “Case hopeless. Come on to-morrow with a doctor.” On receipt of this he knew by their agreement that his son would come down, bringing with him the man of violence whom he had spoken of at their last interview. There was nothing for it now but that his ward should die. If he delayed longer, the crash might come before her money was available, and then how vain all regrets would be.

It seemed to him that there was very little risk in the matter. The girl had had no communication with any one. Even of those around her, Mrs. Jorrocks was in her dotage, Rebecca Taylforth was staunch and true, and Stevens knew nothing. Every one on the country side had heard of the invalid young lady at the Priory. Who would be surprised to hear that she had passed away? He dare not call in any local medical man, but his inventive brain had overcome the difficulty, and had hit upon a device by which he might defy both doctors and coroner. If all went as he had planned it, it was difficult to see any chance of detection. In the case of a poorer man the fact that the girl’s money reverted to him might arouse suspicion, but he rightly argued that with his great reputation no one would ever dream that such a consideration could have weight with him.

Having sent the telegram off, and so taken a final step, John Girdlestone felt more at his ease. He was proud of his own energy and decision. As he walked very pompously and gravely down the village street, his heart glowed within him at the thought of the long struggle which he had maintained against misfortune. He passed over in his mind all the successive borrowings and speculations and makeshifts and ruses which the firm had resorted to. Yet, in spite of every danger and difficulty, it still held up its head with the best, and would weather the storm at last. He reflected proudly that there was no other man in the City who would have had the dogged tenacity and the grim resolution which he had displayed during the last twelve months. “If ever any one should put it all in a book,” he said to himself, “there are few who would believe it possible. It is not by my own strength that I have done it.”

The man had no consciousness of blasphemy in him as he revolved this thought in his mind. He was as thoroughly in earnest as were any of those religious fanatics who, throughout history, have burned, sacked, and destroyed, committing every sin under heaven in the name of a God of peace and of mercy.

When he was half-way to the Priory he met a small pony-carriage, which was rattling towards Bedsworth at a great pace, driven by a good-looking middle-aged lady with a small page by her side. The merchant encountered this equipage in a narrow country lane without a footpath, and as it approached him he could not help observing that the lady wore an indignant and gloomy look upon her features which was out of keeping with their general contour. Her forehead was contracted into a very decided frown, and her lips were gathered into what might be described as a negative smile. Girdlestone stood aside to let her pass, but the lady, by a sudden twitch of her right-hand rein, brought the wheels across in so sudden a manner that they were within an ace of going over his toes. He only saved himself by springing back into a gap of the hedge. As it was, he found on looking down that his pearl grey trousers were covered with flakes of wet mud. What made the incident more perplexing was that both the middle-aged lady and the page laughed very heartily as they rattled away to the village. The merchant proceeded on his way marvelling in his heart at the uncharitableness and innate wickedness of unregenerated human nature.

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